I’m a Reader, Not a Writer

My six-month journey with a broken tooth ended today when my dentist installed a permanent crown. Chatting with the dental hygienist, she asked me what I did, “I’m a teacher and a writer.” As we left the office, my husband told me he was proud of me, “I’ve never heard you tell a stranger that you’re a writer before. That’s new.”

Last Saturday, my friend and colleague, Gretchen Bernabei, led professional development in our school district. Her area of expertise? Teaching writing. Sitting with Gretchen and our district ELA coordinators, Gretchen and I joked about how hard it is to see ourselves as writers.

“I write technical writing. It’s not like real writing,” Gretchen said.

“Writing is hard. The only way I get any writing done is waking up at four a.m. and writing. Otherwise, I would talk myself out of it most days,” I admitted.

One of my district friends shook her head, “If the two of you—both published authors—feel insecure and struggle with writing, that makes me feel better about my own writing!” We spent lunch chatting about writing, teaching writing, and fostering students’ ownership for their writing, too.

I know it’s absurd, but I have only recently seen myself as a writer. I wrote two books, and I’m working on another. I write for Nerdy Book Club and this blog on a regular basis. I’ve published journal and magazine articles. I’ve been a professional writer for seven years. I was a writer long before I published anything, but I define myself as a reader, not a writer.

For me, writing is one long response to my ongoing affair with reading and books. Love letters, memoir, manifesto. I write about reading to extend my reading life. I’m an artist’s patron, not her equal. I write about reading because reading doesn’t matter to enough people. I want more people to care.

If I stopped writing about reading, I would stop writing. That’s the truth. Fortunately, I can connect almost anything in my life back to reading. Reading frames my life already. No surprise that reading would frame my writing life, too. I have finally realized that if I value reading so much, I must value writing about reading more. Even though I still see myself as a reader who writes, I can own the writer label honestly now.

My dearest friends are writers, too, but all wear their “writer” badges uneasily. Why is it so hard to take ownership of our writing? Here’s what I need to remind myself and share with you.

Just this:

  • If you write, you are a writer.
  • If you don’t write, you are not a writer.
  • If you want to be a writer, you must write.
  • The only writers who struggle with writing are ALL of them.
  • Write about what matters to you and make the rest of us care about it.
  • Anyone who tells you she’s a writer must believe it herself before she can admit it to you.


Of course, I could give you the exact same advice about reading.

But you knew that already.

7 responses to “I’m a Reader, Not a Writer

  1. I love that you had difficulty calling yourself a writer, even though you shouldn’t. I am struggling with this. I have never written for anyone but myself, or teachers, yet it is a life-long love for me. I hope I can one day make readers care about the words I write.


  2. As i sit at home, struggling with a paper for graduate class, I appreciate our shared wondering about the idea of a writer. I write, and yet, I still don’t think of myself as a writer, even when I’m writing a paper that requires me to envision readers. I wonder why we hold “writer” is such a revered place that we feel like we cannot lay claim to the title unless we reach some fog-enshrined mountain top of achievement. Thanks for making me think yet again, Donalyn. I value your voice among the ones I hear as inspiration and cheerleader as I face my own writing, reading, and teaching.

  3. Took me years to identify myself easily as a children’s writer. Poet took even longer. My husband bought me a POET mug, and, silly as it sounds, it helped–a first step with being at ease with that title. But, the more you say it–“I’m a writer”–the easier it gets. So, keep it up:>)

  4. Your list is 100% true. It reflects everything I heard this past weekend at the SCBWI Annual Conference. This list is just perfect, Donalyn.

    AND… there are MANY of us who consider you a reader and a writer.

  5. Interesting.

    I do not struggle with writing. I struggle to write well.


  6. Hi Donalyn,
    I just found your book (first one) and your blog. I have had it on my heart to write fiction that would interest older boys but be on about a low 3rd grade reading level. I love your reminders above. I guess I should just get started!
    Do you have a list of low-grade level books for upper elementary/middle school aged boys?

  7. Donalyn,
    I don’t think any of us expect an email back. Relax.
    My mom’s a published author and your bullets are EXACTLY what she tells people in every conversation.
    Not struggling: developing. Right? Of course, right.

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